The Mechanic and I saw “Into the Woods,” the new movie, over the New Year’s weekend. We rarely go to see movies; apparently this is our New Year’s tradition. What a brilliant movie to see on the big screen! There were so many excellent moments in the show, lines (“I was raised to be Charming, not sincere…”), costumes, songs, sets, scenes…. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, and I was really happy to get to introduce it to The Mechanic. Now I want him to see the video production of the 1987 Broadway version, to see the original. The movie isn’t that much different, but it is a bit altered. Still, I loved it and recommend it.
The musical has some special memories for me too – when I was an undergrad, majoring in history at CSU Sacramento, I worked in the theater costume shop. One semester they did “Into the Woods” with costumes rented from the Broadway tour. I had been dressing Broadway tours already at that point, so I was not new to seeing Broadway costumes, but I remember a moment of disappointment in the repairs in the Stepsisters’ costumes. Twenty (or so) years later, I understand what I saw, but at the time, well, I assumed that professional costumes at least used matching thread colors! That CSUS production was also my first draped costumed, draped, then dyed, and that will also always be special to me.
Despite all the wonderful moments and memories, there was something in the back of my mind while I watched the movie that bothered me. The forest, the Woods, was the biggest uncredited performer in the movie, and not necessarily well represented. It started off well: in the first act, the Baker and his Wife have a duet in which she sings about how different he is in the woods – “stronger, braver.” It made me think about the Children & Nature Network, and all the research that shows the benefits of being in nature – not just the health impact of physical exercise over sitting in front of a screen, but also mental health and development, emotional health and reduced stress, etc. In the first act of “Into the Woods,” each character that ventures into the woods learns something about themselves, they grow as a person. This is exactly what we want children to get out of playing in nature.
However… in the second act, the Woods are dark, sinister and dangerous, the paths are gone, everything looks different – it’s gotten scary. The characters fight, some die, and they all panic. Even when some of them join forces to solve the problem, they still come out of it scarred. This unfortunate portrayal of the Woods reminded me of an op ed in the LA Times, found through the Children & Nature Network newsletter, entitled “The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors.” The author, Gary Ferguson, makes a startling statement up front: “…our unease about nature is beginning to outweigh our desire for it.” He then goes on to list the number of TV shows and movies that cast Nature as the bad guy. Not only are we addicted to our electronic devices, we are being told by the media that nature is scary, dark, sinister, dangerous and deadly. No wonder no one wants to play outside! And now we have a movie that ends with a scary Woods, exactly what everyone will remember when they leave the movie theater, not the empowering discovery of the first act. Even the movie ads make the Woods seem menacing!
The implications of children not knowing the outdoors are well documented; you only need to spend a bit of time on the Children & Nature website to see some proof. But beyond the individual development of nature play, there is a greater concern that children who have no connection to nature will grow into adults who see no value in national parks, state parks and local green space. That means the parks are at risk; god forbid we lose the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, along with numerous other smaller parks, because generations after our see no reason to keep them as public parks. The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary in a year, in 1916, and I hope we can keep it around another hundred years. But maybe we need to make more of an effort to ensure that children see nature as a positive thing, not something to fear. And that effort needs to include the arts and entertainment – TV shows, movies, and adults dedicated to putting down the electronics to sit still and enjoy going into the woods.